“Too wild and terrible” is what Ludwig van Beethoven is reported to have said about Mozart’s famous Requiem. And despite the popularity of this great, unfinished work, the “wild and terrible” side of Mozart has generally been obscured in the public mind, in favor of his seemingly “lighter” works: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the overture to Le Nozze Di Figaro, the Flute and Harp Concerto, the “Turkish Rondo.”

Indeed, for decades, from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1970s or 1980s, it was the “China Doll” image of Mozart that held sway over classical music fans. This traditional view of Mozart is that of the adorable boy wonder, playing while blindfolded pretty little tunes on the violin and piano for kings and popes, all the time attired in proper little breeches and knee socks and a nicely-coiffed, little, powdered wig. It is that of the cosmopolitan composer who wowed Vienna, Paris, and Prague with genteel concertos, symphonies, and operas. The China-Doll Mozart is the composer of sprightly, innocuous music, well-suited to improve the brains of babies and toddlers (through the so-called “Mozart Effect”), to improve mental performance in adults, and to be played in elevators on modern synthesizers. We find the China-Doll Mozart on those marzipan candies sold as souvenirs, which bear the image of the composer smartly attired in a fine, bright red jacket, staring blankly and calmly at us, with a Mona Lisa-like contented and knowing smile.

In 1984, the release of the film Amadeus turned the public perception of Mozart on its head. Director Milos Forman and actor Tom Hulce painted the composer as a spoiled, crude brat who was all too aware of his own genius and the mediocrity of those around him… and who was not shy about telling the latter about the former. It was only God, working through this little man, who was responsible for the creation of the composer’s masterpieces. Amadeus did helpfully depict the “wild and terrible” side of Mozart, including in the score for the film the stormy first movement of Symphony No. 25 and the eerie opening of the Piano Concerto No. 20, and using the momentous Commendatore scene from Don Giovanni and the composition of the Requiem as culminating points of the drama. Yet audiences most remember the hyena-like, silly giggle invented by Messrs. Forman and Hulce for Mozart; so, instead of the China-Doll Mozart, we now have the Divine-Child Mozart.

Of course, even in the seemingly lighter pieces so associated with Mozart, there are depths… and ones that not all listeners will plumb. And this is how Mozart designed it. His music almost always possesses both a surface appeal—lively, melodic, seemingly relatively simple and appealing to the ear—and side that is darker and more complex (both technically and emotionally). As Pope Benedict XVI put it, Mozart’s music “is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep. His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.” Examples here are legion, of course, but here I will point out two: the first movement of Symphony No. 39, whose martial, foreboding, unsettling introductory section is followed by a joyous, bouncy main allegro; and the Rondo for Piano and Orchestra in D major, K. 382, which opens with and is founded upon the most simplistic, even childish, of tunes, and yet which develops a depth and majesty as it progresses.

In terms of Mozart’s that are not so “luminous,” where the shadows fall across the listener’s ears, there is of course, the aforementioned Requiem and the penultimate scene of Don Giovanni, as well as the Masonic Funeral Music, the stormy first movement of the G minor Piano Quartet (with a Beethovenian, opening “Fate” motif) and perhaps the darkest, most modern-sounding work Mozart ever composed: the “Adagio and Fugue in C Minor,” K. 546. Mozart composed the fugue section for two pianos in 1783, influenced by the famous fugues of Bach, whom his patron, the Baron von Swieten, had encouraged him to study. “Baron van Suiten [sic], whom I visit every Sunday, gave me all the works of Handel and Sebastian Bach to take home with me after I had played them through to him,” Mozart wrote to his sister. “When Constanze [Mozart’s wife] heard the fugues she fell quite in love with them. She will listen to nothing but fugues now…. Having often heard me play fugues off the top of my head, she asked if I had ever written any down, and when I said I had not, she scolded me very thoroughly for not having written anything in this most artistic and beautiful of musical forms.”

Mozart added the chilling adagio section five years later, scoring the entire work now for strings. It sounds much like late Beethoven (whose famous Fifth Symphony was also composed in the dark key of C minor), or perhaps the work of a Romantic, or even a turn-of-the-twentieth-century composer.

Play it for friends who are knowledgeable about classical music, and see if any guess Mozart as the composer!

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The featured image is “Don Juan and the statue of the Commander” by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, oil on canvas, circa 1830-1835. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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